These senior-friendly national parks in the U.S. have wheelchair access, audio tours for vision-impaired visitors, accessible trails, and more.
America’s beautiful and diverse national parks are well-loved vacation destinations. From the U.S. Virgin Islands to American Samoa to 30 U.S. states, national parks have been set aside to preserve the natural beauty of their environment. California has the most, followed by Alaska, Utah, and Colorado, so it’s not surprising that when Travel + Leisure’s readers voted for their favorite national parks in the annual World's Best Awards, the majority of the 25 were in the West.
While the rugged, remote settings are a large part of the appeal of U.S. national parks, those same factors have made exploring them a challenge for seniors with limited mobility, sight, or hearing. However, the National Park System is focusing on not only on improving accessibility, but also publishing specifics for planning national park visits, so that individuals of all ages can enjoy these spaces.
In 2012, the National Park Service (NPS) formed its Accessibility Task Force, with the overall goal of improving access for a wider range of visitors. The plan addresses wheelchair access, in addition to restrooms, parking lots, water fountains, and other potential challenges throughout the parks. Today, each park’s website includes an accessibility page that outlines services, facilities, and activities designed to enhance enjoyment for everyone.
Annual and lifetime senior passes are available for visitors over the age of 62, and their travel companions (up to three) can also enter the national parks at no cost. U.S. citizens and permanent residents of any age who are medically determined to have a permanent disability are eligible for free national park access passes.
Aging in Place, an organization that serves as a resource for older Americans, published an article on the most accessible national parks, based on the number of wheelchair-friendly trails and restaurants. Badlands, Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone lead their list.
After reviewing accessibility pages on additional national park websites, we came up with our list of the best national parks for seniors.
Yosemite National Park, California
Yosemite National Park, one of the nation’s most popular destinations for waterfalls, granite cliffs, and giant sequoias, offers sign language interpreting and assistive listening devices for free for all park programs, along with FAQ videos presented in American Sign Language. Park brochures in Braille and activities for young visitors with a variety of special needs are also available. The accessibility guide includes a map of accessible parking areas, trails, picnic grounds, restrooms, campgrounds, lodging, and food service.
Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
Featuring the longest known cave system in the world, this park is also a UNESCO World Heritage site and International Biosphere Reserve. Two tours are available for individuals with limited mobility, including an elevator and access for wheelchairs, walkers, scooters, and canes. One of the tours offers a short bus ride to limit walking time. And an audio tour for vision-impaired visitors includes realistic sounds of water along with historic stories of the caves.
Acadia National Park, Maine
Maine’s rugged, rocky coast, ocean views, the highest mountain on the Atlantic, and historic lighthouses are just a few things that Acadia National Park has to offer. The free, wheelchair-friendly Island Explorer shuttle buses take visitors to popular park destinations, some of which are accessible to wheelchairs. Visitor centers and restrooms are wheelchair accessible, too, and designated parking is available. Several picnic areas and campsites are accessible, and Jordan Pond House, the park’s only restaurant, has wheelchair access and connects to the shuttle.
Everglades National Park, Florida
More than a million acres of marshland across the southern tip of Florida offers visitors a chance to see a diverse subtropical area and endangered species like the manatee, American crocodile, and Florida panther. A UNESCO World Heritage site and International Biosphere Reserve, Everglades provides captioning on films in visitor centers as well as assistive listening devices upon request for ranger-led programs. Visitors with limited mobility will find several wheelchair-accessible trails and boat tours, plus ramps and designated parking at visitor centers. Audio recordings, tactile exhibits, and printed information are available for vision-impaired guests as well.
Blue Ridge Parkway National Parkway, Virginia and North Carolina
The most-visited national park in 1921, according to the National Park Service, the 469- mile Parkway is designated as an All-American Road. Noted for its year-round beauty, it links Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains national parks. The Parkway site lists specific details about accessible visitor centers, programs, campsites, and restrooms. And an additional Blue Ridge Parkway site provides information on scenic overlooks, accessible trails, visitor centers, and fishing spots.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee
This beautiful destination has topped the list of most-visited national parks for many years, and saw more than 14 million guests in 2021. In addition to its stunning scenery, the park features historical attractions such as well-preserved log cabins, barns, cemeteries, and churches. Most of the visitor centers offer accessible parking, restrooms, exhibits, and audio-visual rooms on one level. Road maps are provided for self-guided auto tours, and much of the park can be enjoyed from a vehicle, including many of the vintage buildings.
Indiana Dunes National Park, Indiana
Located on the southern shore of Lake Michigan, this 15,000-acre park offers sandy beaches, wetlands, dunes, forests, rivers, and wildlife. Visitors can enjoy the park year-round, with fishing and hiking during the summer and winter sports when snow falls. The visitor center is accessible, and devices are available for hearing assistance. Several campgrounds, picnic areas, a fishing pier, and trails are also accessible. During the summer season, large-wheeled wheelchairs are available for beach access.